Mr. Browning’s verse is also subordinate to this intellectual theory of poetic art. It is uniformly inspired by the principle that sense should not be sacrificed to sound: and this principle constitutes his chief ground of divergence from other poets. It is a case of divergence—nothing more: since he is too deeply a musician to be indifferent to sound in verse, and since no other poet deserving the name would willingly sacrifice sense to it. But while all agree in admitting that sense and sound in poetry are the natural complement of each other, each will be practically more susceptible to one than to the other, and will unconsciously seek it at the expense of the other. With all his love for music, Mr. Browning is more susceptible to sense than to sound. He values though more than expression; matter, more than form; and, judging him from a strictly poetic point of view, he has lost his balance in this direction, as so many have lost it in the opposite one. He has never ignored beauty, but he has neglected it in the desire for significance. He has never meant to be rugged, but he has become so, in the exercise of strength. He has never intended to be obscure, but he has become so from the condensation of style which was the excess of significance and of strength. Habit grows on us by degrees till its slight invisible links form an iron chain, till it overweights its object, and even ends in crushing it out of sight; and Mr. Browning has illustrated this natural law. The self-enslavement was the more inevitable in his case that he was not only an earnest worker, but a solitary one. His genius removed him from the first from that sphere of popular sympathy in which the tendency to excess would have been corrected; and the distance, like the mental habit which created it, was self-increasing.
It is thus that Mr. Browning explains the eccentricities of his style; and his friends know that beyond the point of explaining, he does not defend them. He has never blamed his public for accusing him of obscurity or ugliness He has only thought those wrong who taxed him with being wilfully ugly or obscure. He began early to defy public opinion because his best endeavours had failed to conciliate it; and he would never conciliate it at the expense of what he believed to be the true principles of his art. But his first and greatest failure from a popular point of view was the result of his willingness to accept any judgment, however unfavourable, which coincided with this belief.
“Paracelsus,” had recently been published, and declared “unintelligible;” and Mr. Browning was pondering this fact and concluding that he had failed to be intelligible because he had been too concise, when an extract from a letter of Miss Caroline Fox was forwarded to him by the lady to whom it had been addressed. The writer stated that John Sterling had tried to read the poem and been repelled by its verbosity; and she ended with this question: “doth he know that Wordsworth will devote a fortnight or more to the discovery of the single word that is the one fit for his sonnet?”